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Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, I am not quite sure whether the Government are in favour of the infallibility of Ministers--or at any rate, their wisdom--or whether they agree with the observation that fell from the lips of a senior French official yesterday that the council has ceased to be a place of negotiation and become a place where you drop in to sign a press release.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I was not aware of that utterance by a French official. Those of my ministerial colleagues who attend the Council of Ministers certainly know that a great deal of hard work goes on there on the part of all the Ministers involved in order to try to advance the position of the European Union. Ministers from this Government who attend always ensure that they put British interests first.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she recall that it was the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, who, when she was Prime Minister, took the most decisive action to improve the level of recruitment of British citizens to the Commission, through the setting up of the European "fast stream". I understand that, since then, recruitment has improved very considerably. Can she assure the House that in current reviews of Civil Service procedures the European fast stream will be maintained, as this is a very long-term investment?
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am very pleased to say that it was my noble friend Lady Thatcher who initiated the European fast stream. In case noble Lords are not aware, this provides a programme of training and placements in UK departments for young, high-flying civil servants to assist their preparation for EU competitions. It has been running for just over five years, and has proved very successful. Thirty-five UK European fast-streamers were successful in four Commission competitions in the first three years. They represented 30 per cent. of the total UK successes. We intend to continue with the programme; it is a very good system.
Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I know that my noble friend the Minister is very committed to the European fast stream. Can she assure us that the obstacles that used to be placed in the way of re-entry into the Civil Service when people had been seconded have now been removed? Is it now possible for people not to lose promotion as they used to?
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I wish I could agree with my noble friend that the obstacles had been removed. However, I do not yet feel that they have been sufficiently removed. We do our best by ensuring that wherever we spot under-representation we can put somebody into a place. We have also helped by making sure that a member of the Cabinet Office is seconded to work in the Commission on this very issue. However, we do not yet have UK government departments offering a hand to welcome people back. Until that happens, I regret to say that a lesser number will be prepared to go if they know that they cannot return to the British Civil Service after a spell in the European Commission.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, it is very satisfactory to note that efforts are being made to increase the number of British nationals serving in the Commission. However, will the Minister agree that it is surprising that over the years we have fallen behind such countries as Germany, France and Italy? At the present time each of those countries has 2,000 or more nationals serving in the Commission, whereas the number of United Kingdom nationals is less than 1,500--only slightly higher than
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I can tell the House the reason immediately. It is because we have not been so good at producing non-graduate linguists as have other countries. It is in the clerical, executive and secretarial grades that those other countries have a far higher proportion of good linguists. That is responsible for the high number from those countries which we cannot match. It is also the case that we now have a high proportion of secretaries who are bi- or tri-lingual. However, bi- and tri-lingual secretaries in this country normally have university degrees and are not then eligible for the secretarial grades within the European Commission. Therefore, we have to do something about non-graduate linguists, and a lot more, too.
Lord Beloff: My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister agree that when a well-qualified British member of the Commission staff is sacked for telling the truth about what goes on in the Commission, it is a disincentive to other British citizens to apply for positions in Brussels?
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, my noble friend is well aware of the case--I believe he joined in the discussion the last time that this particular question arose. When one works either in the British Civil Service or in the Commission, one has to abide by the rules. If one does not, then the disciplinary procedures will take place.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, given the Minister's earlier statement that the problem in this country is partly due to a lack of language ability post-school, what steps is she taking to persuade her colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment that provision should be made for an increase in language teaching in our primary and secondary schools?
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, the Secretary of State for Education, Mrs. Gillian Shephard, who is trilingual, needs no encouragement from me to ensure that more language teaching takes place in schools. Indeed, she has been doing that ever since she went to that department. But the problem is not a recent one. It dates back to the 1960s, when, if I remember rightly, many people on the opposite side of this House did not believe in Europe at all and certainly did not encourage language teaching.
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, the questions asked of any programme provided by the European Commission must always be, "Is it good value for money?" or "Can we do it better at a national level?" That is subsidiarity. There are aspects of the Lingua programme which are good and other aspects which are not so good. I know that there has been a very special
Lord Annan: My Lords, did I understand the Minister to say that graduates were debarred from holding secretarial posts? Surely, that is a ludicrous situation. No wonder there is graduate unemployment when that is the case.
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, the problem is that, although we may have very good secretaries, they are often graduate secretaries. In that case, there has been a rule in the Commission--which we have already tried to have changed--that those with degrees in languages cannot apply for secretarial posts, if that is what they wish. This would be thought by some other countries to be unfair to their secretaries who do not have a language degree but who speak foreign languages. That is yet another matter that has to be put right in Brussels.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, with regard to language education in schools, will the Minister speak to her noble friend Lord Henley about a scheme for teaching geography to GCSE level in the medium of Spanish--I wrote to him about the matter--where our own authorities are providing a block to that very worthwhile scheme in a boys' comprehensive school?
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, obviously I do not know about the individual case mentioned by the noble Baroness. My noble friend Lord Henley reads Hansard avidly and I shall make sure that her remarks are noted by him.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that, as the promotion of British citizens in the Commission is important to the maintenance of their morale, the British Government will give careful thought to encouraging promotions within the Commission to senior A1 to A3 positions rather than parachuting in people from the outside?
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right but, as he well knows, achieving promotions within the Commission is not so straightforward a situation as we should wish. There is now a member of the British Cabinet Office in the Commission specifically directing attention to these matters, and this will help us. There is no doubt that we are under-represented in the A1 to A3 grades, as we are in some of the non-senior grades.
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